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How Congress may block a troop 'surge'

The House has the power to trim funds for the Iraq war, but it's a politically risky move.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 11, 2007


If Congress decides to block the president's plan for a troop buildup in Iraq, it has all the clout it needs – at least on parchment – to trim war funding through its power of the purse. Call it the Murtha plan.

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Congress can also opt to push back with hearings, investigations, and resolutions that condemn an escalation of the war or require President Bush to return to Congress for approval before committing troops. Call that the Kennedy plan.

Choosing which strategy to pursue is causing heated debate within the new Democratic majority, which believes it owes its power to an election-season promise to begin withdrawing US troops. They are joined by a growing number of Republicans who – at least in the run-up to Mr. Bush unveiling his Iraq plan Wednesday – were reluctant to send more Americans into a war they believed could not be won.

But even at the lowest public-approval ratings of his career, Bush as commander in chief brings powerful assets to any conflict with Congress over the conduct of war. He can rally the public (as he hopes to do with Wednesday night's speech). He can order troop movements before Congress can thwart them. He can delay requests for supplemental war funding to blunt Congress's power of the purse.

Only in the last few days have Democratic leaders even entertained the idea of cutting off funding for the war. For Rep. John Murtha (D) of Pennsylvania, the lead advocate for using funding to force a change of course in this war, timing is crucial. His Defense Appropriations subcommittee is the gateway for every dime spent on the war. He says that he will use that power to bar a troop surge in Iraq if, for example, it undermines the military's domestic readiness.

"If we just pass resolutions, the president will veto them. If he vetoes an appropriations bill, he doesn't have any money. It's the only weapon we have," he says.

But to wield that power, he needs the president to submit a request for additional defense spending before a "surge" of new troops into Iraq. So far, all war funding has been handled that way – as supplemental requests to Congress outside the normal budget process.

In the next two months, his subcommittee will hold hearings to document the state of readiness of US forces and build support for writing benchmarks and conditions into the next defense spending bill.

On a faster track, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts proposed legislation this week that would require the president to come back to the Congress and get authority for deploying additional American troops to Iraq. "I am introducing legislation to reclaim the rightful role of Congress and the people's right to a full voice in the president's plan to send more troops to Iraq," he said in an address at the National Press Club on Tuesday.

"No one – no one – can seriously deny that this civil war is radically different from the mission Congress voted for in 2002," he added.